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As Vita sales lag, a new publisher goes all-in on the handheld
As Vita sales lag, a new publisher goes all-in on the handheld Exclusive
August 23, 2012 | By Mike Rose

August 23, 2012 | By Mike Rose
More: Console/PC, Indie, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

There's doom and gloom surrounding the future of Sony's PlayStation Vita. But one new publisher has teamed up with talented indie developers who have faith in the handheld's potential. Gamasutra's Mike Rose reports.

Things aren't going well for Sony's PS Vita. The handheld sold just 400,000 units worldwide in the last quarter, while Sony president Shuhei Yoshida recently admitted that the company is having a difficult time getting third-party developers on board.

So you may well do a double-take if I were to tell you there's a new publisher on the block that is not only focused on bringing games to the Vita, but focused almost exclusively on publishing indie games for the handheld.

The Liverpool, UK-based Ripstone is doing just that. VooFoo Studios' Pure Chess for Vita and PlayStation 3 was released earlier this year through the Ripstone brand, and now the publisher has picked up more big names in the indie scene for releases later this year.

Big Sky Infinity is the next in the Big Sky procedurally-generated shooter series from Boss Baddie, while Knytt Underground continues Nifflas' much-loved Knytt stories. There's also Panic! on the way from new studio Thumbs Up -- all three titles are set to hit the Vita before the year is out, complete with PS3 cross-play.

"I'm a passionate hardcore gamer, and I love my Vita," says Phil Gaskell, creative director and co-founder of Ripstone. "I don't see another portable device currently servicing hardcore gamers. There are other devices out there, but none of them are dedicated gaming machines as good as this one."

With Ripstone, Gaskell and the rest of his team is looking to set an example. "For me as a publisher, we can either whine about lack of sales, or we can go out and publish unique and compelling games for the Vita that drive sales," he notes.

"So my role now is to help these indies get their games onto the console, in the hope that it will drive further sales of the console, and we can all have a good time making games for it!"

Nicklas Nygren of Nifflas received his offer from Ripstone after showing Knytt Underground to the publisher, and didn't hesitate to jump on it. Development studio Green Hill is porting the game to the PS Vita and PS3 for Ripstone, meaning that Nygren can simply concentrate on making sure the game is on a par with his previous Knytt releases.

knytt underground.jpgFor most of his developer life, Nygren was happy to create freeware. However, as of late he's realized that gamers are more than happy to pay for his games, starting with NightSky on PC, and now this Vita and PS3 release.

"My game development is going so well, so I can [make money]!" he laughs. "Otherwise I would have to get a normal job and I would not be able to spend as much time on what I want to do."

But doesn't having a publisher go against 'the indie way'? I ask him. "To be honest, I don't have very strong opinions about these things," he responds. "I'm just testing stuff and seeing what happens.

"I think it's very silly to have these idealist kind of views that a publisher is always a bad thing. There are no simple rules saying that you should do it like this or that. I guess everybody has to find their own way to do things. I just like going with the flow and taking opportunities to show up. If I get the chance to make a game for Vita and PS3 -- why not? It sounds amazing."

Like a Boss

Boss Baddie's James Whitehead is also new to this whole having-a-publisher malarkey. Ripstone will publish Big Sky Infinity later this year, building on the previous titles in the series including Really Big Sky.

"It's a lot more formal," he says of having a publisher for his Vita and PS3 title. "It's a different experience. When I built Really Big Sky, it was me, and I was just listening to feedback from other players, and playtesting it myself an awful lot and coming up with new ideas all the time.

"But working with a publisher, you get all that done beforehand, it's a lot more streamlined. Plus, working with a publisher has meant that I've been introduced to people like VooFoo Studios and the artists and coders -- I couldn't have done all this myself."

Big Sky was picked up by Ripstone after Gaskell spotted the trailer over on Gamasutra sister site -- "I loved what I saw, and I thought it would make a great Vita game," he tells us. "It's really colorful, I thought the colors would pop on the OLED screen."

Like Nygren, Whitehead was very keen to get cracking on a Vita version of his game. "I really wanted to work on it, I thought there was a lot of potential in the Vita," he notes. "I wanted to break into console development, with trophies in my games and all that kind of stuff."

big sky infinity.jpgMoving to the Vita for his Big Sky series is "an easy progression," says Whitehead, as the franchise has always been built with a controller in mind, rather than a keyboard and mouse.

"Plus, I've always loved handheld consoles," he adds. "So it's kinda fulfilling a dream in a way." Whitehead is working with Pure Chess developer VooFoo to bring the game to Vita, and when it launches, it will support cloud saves across both the PS3 and Vita versions -- "you can be playing it on the train, then go home and take your save data over to your PlayStation 3," he says.

Don't Panic

Nicolas Marinus is managing director of Thumbs Up, a new start-up that was originally aiming to primarily put out iOS games. However, as his team began to look into its options, Marinus came to the conclusion that he was perhaps looking at the wrong platform.

"iOS is very open, so there's a huge amount of games out there, and a huge amount of people buying those games," he tells us. "But they're less inclined to pay for them. So you've got a very divergent market with a lot of crap games in them as well"

In comparison, he says, "PlayStation is this seal of quality. Every game that they publish is of a certain standard, and the customers are more loyal. Their fan base is more dedicated, so they're more open to paying for those games as well."

While developing for iOS may be easier for the average developer, it's also a lot more difficult to get noticed on the platform, he reasons. "Whereas with PlayStation, it's harder to develop for it, but the chances of your game being picked up are larger as well. So that's the main reason I've chosen Vita and PS3: Dedicated people, and a quality seal."

In fact, the first time that Marinus brought an iOS prototype for his game to Ripstone, the publisher wasn't into it. However, after meeting the Green Hill studio and being coaxed into aiming for PlayStation Mobile instead of iOS, Marinus put a new trailer to Ripstone. He was in.

panic.jpg"My game is developed specifically for PlayStation Mobile, so our main focus was the Xperia line first, and now we're tackling the Vita as well," he adds. "Sony is very much dedicated to making sure that all the games for PlayStation Mobile also work very fluidly on the Vita."

Marinus was wary of using a publisher for his first game, especially given all the horror stories he had been told "about how they will take your IP and then kick your game out into the market -- if it performs well, great for them, but if it doesn't perform well, they're just going to let it die."

However, with Ripstone, Marinus is more than happy to go ahead with his PlayStation Mobile development. "They've put money on the table and they've offered some really good feedback. They're offering services like QA out of their own pocket. I don't have to worry about that. The deal that we have is very much a win-win situation, so I don't feel that a publisher is a bad thing."

He warns, "Just make sure you find the right publisher, and get a good deal."

It may well be this nurturing edge that allows Ripstone to coax more indie developers over to the Vita -- and Sony will no doubt be quietly watching from the shadows if Shuhei Yoshida's previous words on the topic are anything to go by.

"I think some people have a bad experience [with publishers] because the publisher has exerted control over them to the point where they don't feel like they own what they're creating," says Ripstone's Gaskell. "It's something that we're very conscious about."

"These are the creative guys, it's their vision, their story. We're not intending to meddle with that. We're here to help them get their vision out, not here to tell them that that should be green, not blue, or that the characters should wear a hat."

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k s
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Honestly I don't really see this helping the vita in the long run.

Kris Graft
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They alone won't "save" the Vita, and they're not claiming to. But Ripstone's attitude and initiative, if adopted by more devs, could at least make the Vita interesting enough for discerning players looking for something targeted at them specifically. I think a lot of devs realize the Vita is a really good piece of hardware, but the install base just isn't there, so Vita's doom is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the handheld became known for these types of games, maybe it could find a bit more an audience?

(...Or maybe it just needs to drop by $70 and everything would be just fine.)

Ian Uniacke
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If it really is a good piece of hardware though, why are it's sales so low? I know there are lots of theories involving software and price, but surely you have to AT LEAST CONSIDER the possibility that the pundits are just flat out wrong and the device just serves no market.

edit: when I say "no market" I mean no significant market...obviously it serves a market of at least 2 million.

Ryan Merritt
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Nope, just another failed mobile system for sony.

James Barnette
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Uhm what was the other one? the PSP was hardly a failure. While not making the numbers that the DS series over the same time made it was hardly a failure by any stretch of the imagination. the PSP go didn't exactly do the numbers that they would have liked but I don't think is was exactly a failure. it was just too late in the lifecycle of the platform.

I Love my Vita the problem was that Sony due to it's own internal problems at the time and finical struggles didn't subsidized enough launch titles. usually they would pony up to help studios cover some of the risk involved with developing for a new platform. But they didn't really do that this time around and it showed by the low number of titles.

Right now the last thing that the Vita needs is a bunch of silly assed little games that offer the same experience of playing on and iPhone. they need to try to produce titles that you feel like you are playing on your PS3 not your iPad is they just follow the trend and what is popular they will be doomed.

This is a bad thing that I'm seeing a lot of in the industry. There is a lot of dumbing down the experience. there is a lot of following whatever is trendy. People need to deliver the thing that consumers are not getting. But lets face it consumers don't really know what they want . Henry Ford said it best: "If I had asked my customers what they needed they would have said a faster horse!"

Evan Combs
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"produce titles that you feel like you are playing on your PS3"

Depends on what you mean by this. If you mean trying to recreate Assassin's Creed or Modern Warefare, I disagree. If you mean games more like what you see on XBLA and PSN then I completely agree. The last thing they need to do is try to be a console that just happens to also be portable. What they need to do is create and promote games that work within the environment people will be playing the Vita in. While some will play it in bed or on the couch, the majority of people will play it the majority of the time when they are on the go or waiting for something. This means the experience needs to be targeted towards that.

I agree with you they shouldn't be iOS/Android type games designed to be picked up and played for 5 minutes then put down. They do, however, need to be designed with an average session time frame of 20 minutes to 45 minutes.

With all of that said, I'm not saying it is a bad idea to have games like Assassin's Creed on the Vita, only that they should not be the focus of the Vita. The Vita needs to focus on unique experiences and IP's that may not work on a console or smartphone. Actually a good long term marketing strategy may in fact be to focus on the big console like games to get the hardcore audience in, and once they are in switch the focus to the games that will distinguish the platform as being something more than a console that is also portable.

Mike Griffin
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"Nope, just another failed mobile system for Sony."

In perspective, that failure allowed Sony to move over 70 million PSP units globally. While underwhelming compared to Nintendo's handheld sales the last decade with the DS family, many would kill for the PSP's degree of "failure."

Patrick Davis
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@Kris Graft (...Or maybe it just needs to drop by $70 and everything would be just fine.

Need to slash those memory card prices also. It's flat out ridiculous for what you get right now.

Christopher Thigpen
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It is not the's the price.

When your handheld device costs more than your console.

I mean...cmon.

James Barnette
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They are the same price. 160GB PS3 is $249 same as the Vita

Rey Samonte
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As much negativity that's surrounding the device based on price, I must say, it is a great device which I'm happy to support. Even though I was hesitant to purchase it, I was more than happy once I got to play a few games on it. But as a developer, my primary reason for buying it was so I can mess around with it. So far, it's been a lot of fun and it's unfortunate that the device isn't getting the support I think it should.

In a way, I'm surprised there's not a lot of developers willing to take a chance on it. I might be an optimist, but this is a good chance to get something up on a relatively new piece of hardware that's friendly for developers.

Matt Schwabenbauer
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This is almost exactly like an article from Game Dev Story

Christopher Myburgh
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The Vita has only one direction to go in and that's UP. The price WILL go down, the install base WILL grow and the games WILL come. It's only a matter of time! Right NOW is the best time to get on-board the Vita.

It's an awesome piece of hardware and I'm betting that over the next 2 years, the platform will attract not just core gamers looking for more console-quality experiences on the go, but also mobile phone and tablet gamers that are growing weary of the free-to-play and $1 shovelware that bedevils those marketplaces due to piracy and lack of quality control.

James Barnette
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Yeah I have to say my biggest gripe is the lack of AAA games and the cost of the memory cards.

Adam Steele
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Vita fails cause sony never cared about it in the first. They just wanted to compete and steal some profits from Nintendo. Every Sony PSP has been abandon by them after a few months. I can count 20 decent games over the last 5 years on this portable system. It was set up to be a failure. Why? Only thing I can phantom is some how using it as a tax right off.

This is Square Enix for you. May you rest in peace Square Soft. You used to be so great.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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How did you get to Squaresoft from there?
You know sony is not SquareEnix, right?

To me it feels like a bit of a media boycot tbh. Sure, it's expensive, but it is also a good piece of hardware. Just the title of this article shows this negativity: The theme is new indies approaching the Vita, but it takes a stab at how it's "failing".
No mention at the clear intention to bring up new developers to the platform witht he Playstation mobile SDK.. I wonder why there is such rabbid difamation...

Well I hope they do good, I personally like the platform. Maybe the cross buy and the indie involvement will push it a bit forward.

Yikuno Barnaby
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Sony needs to open up it's mind and allow for Devs to create good, innovative games like how iOS does. The vita is basically a non-phone calling iPhone, in terms of power. There can be great games made for it if Sony allowed it. I don't understand the vice grip Sony has. Microsoft and Apple allow indies to create games and apps for it, why not Sony.

Evan Combs
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Sony has a beta version of something similar to XBLIG going on right now, which the claim will officially launch this fall.

Rey Samonte
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Yes, they do. Google Playstation Suite Mobile SDK. It's what I've been using to mess around with.